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How to read body language and use it to get ahead, according to a Secret Service agent

Inside tricks on reading the nonverbal cues in any meeting — and using them to get what you want.
Image: Boardroom presentation
Eye contact, head nods and leaning in towards you are all signs that your audience is engaged with what you're saying.Cecilie_Arcurs / Getty Images

Most of us find ourselves in a meeting environment weekly, if not daily: Interviewing for a new job, giving a sales presentation to a client, running a meeting at the office, asking your boss for a raise, even breaching a touchy subject with your spouse at home. The list goes on.

The premise of each meeting may be different, but the purpose is the same: to effectively communicate your message and achieve a desired result. Whether that's adding a new client on your sales roster or a chunk of change to your paycheck.

And according to Evy Poumpouras, a former Secret Service special agent and interrogator trained by the Department of Defense in the art and science of lie detection and human behavior, what you say is only the tip of the iceberg.

The 4 pillars of effective communication

Before you even set foot in the room, Poumpouras recommends mastering four fundamentals to set yourself up for success.

  1. Learn to be an active listener. “This means not just using your ears, but all your senses when people talk to you. You have to observe people and the vibe in the room. We live in a place where we don’t do that. It means putting your phone away. Really be there. Be present. You’re not going to be present if you’re distracted.”
  2. Come from a place of empathy. “I hear people say, I treat everyone the way I like to be treated. That’s the wrong answer. You need to treat people the way they want to be treated,” says Poumpouras. “In order to do that you have to know your audience. Do your homework. If they have social media, go look around. Find out if you have anything in common with them. People love to find things in common with one another; we like to find people who are like us. So create that by knowing who you’re sitting in the room with and then knowing what to say and what not to say.”
  3. Create the right environment. Where you are speaking to people matters and being aware of your environment is really important, says Poumpouras. One of her best tips? Eliminate barriers between you and your audience. “When you have a table you can only see what’s happening from the waist up — the lower body gives away just as much as the upper body does. Tables also act as a barrier, so do books. You see people holding books up to their chest … it’s like a bulletproof vest. When you do that you’re blocking off your openness to people so you don’t seem as open or acceptable. I never stand behind a podium. Ever. Because I know it’s creating a barrier, a separation, between me and my audience. And I want my audience to connect with me, feel that it’s us together, rather than them and me."
  4. Get your mind right. “Put yourself in the right psychological mindset before you go have these conversations. Amp yourself up. Pretend you’re walking into a boxing ring,” says Poumpouras. “Listen to the most bad-ass song you can, the one you listen to before you run five miles or the song that makes you feel good about yourself. The night before, watch movies that make you feel strong and powerful. Go shadow box in the bathroom stall where no one can see you. Sometimes the mind follows the body. Do something that makes you feel strong and courageous. If you have someone who is a good confidence builder, talk to that person or create it internally with music, movies, working out, using your body. Do something that will alter your psychological mindset and make you feel powerful, strong and brave.”

How to read other people’s body language

Creating a solid foundation for being the most effective communicator you can be is the first step. But how many times have you left a meeting and thought, “I have no idea how that went?” If you know what to look for there are signs everywhere that you can use to assess how the interaction is going, and make adjustments where needed.

I always say, open up your eyes and listen.

The only way to know if you're resonating with your audience — whether it's your boss, a room full of co-workers or your kids — is to look at people, she says. “The majority of what we communicate is actually through our bodies, not through the words we speak. If you’re not looking at people, you can’t feel them or sense them. I always say, open up your eyes and listen.”

Here are some nonverbal clues that will help you "read" the room:

  • The head nod. “If people are engaged, you’re going to get a head nod,” says Poumpouras. “When I talk to people, the way I know that what I’m saying is resonating is I see the head nod up and down and I see their eyes follow me.”
  • Eye contact: “It’s normal for people to break eye contact with you. People aren’t always going to look at you when you talk, and that’s okay. Especially if they’re trying to recall things, you’ll usually see people look up and back or to the side, because they’re trying to access the part of their brain that lets them get information,” says Poumpouras. “But when you’re talking you want to make sure that person is engaged with you. If they’re looking away, looking at their notebook scribbling notes, they’re not there with you; that’s one of the things I look for.”
  • Posture: “If they're leaning in, if their hands are out and open, palms facing up, that’s a good sign that they are connecting with you,” says Poumpouras. “If they’re leaning back in their chair, they look like they’re hanging out or bored, that’s something to be aware of. If people are there you’ll see it. If someone is leaning in and all of a sudden you say something and their arms crossed, now I know I said something that this person didn’t like. But you’ll miss it if you’re not looking.”

It takes two: Take note of your own body language

“We’re so focused on reading the other person, but they are only 50 percent of the equation, we are the other 50 percent,” says Poumpouras. “You have to think: If I saw me walking into a room, what would I think? You have to flip it and see things from the other person’s lens.”

So often, our goal when we enter a room is to have people like and respect us, but Poumpouras says we shouldn’t demand respect, we should command it.

You have to think: If I saw me walking into a room, what would I think? Flip it and see things from the other person’s lens.

“You cannot make anybody respect you. We have to get rid of that in our minds. Respect is something people give. They either want to give it to you or they don’t, so if we focus so hard on making people respect you, you’re going to drive yourself nuts. What you can do is you can command respect. The way you do that is in the way you carry yourself.”

It starts with when we enter the room, says Poumpouras. “What’s your posture? Are you standing up straight? Are your shoulders back? Is your chin parallel to the floor? Something as simple as that, you’re commanding respect. We’ve all seen those people who when they walk into a room, you can just feel their presence. That’s who you want to be.”

When it’s your time to talk, Poumpouras says to speak with your whole body. “Don’t just sit there and and talk. Move your hands. When you speak, use all of you. If you’re not passionate about what you’re saying, they won’t be.”

7 psychological tricks to get what you want out of a meeting

Beyond the physical adjustments we can make to command respect and attention in our communication with others, there are some mental shifts that Poumpouras recommends we make as well.

1. Leave your ego at the door. “When you ask yourself 'Does this person like me?' — that’s your ego talking. Your ego has no place in any negotiation,” says Poumpouras. “When I talk to people, my ego gets checked at the door, because I’m focused on what I need from the other person; it’s not about my feelings. Your ego will sabotage you. What’s your greater goal? Is it to get the job, to get somebody to purchase your product or services, whatever it is, that’s my goal. Not 'do they like me?'”

2. Ask: What does this person need from me? “I used to do a lot of interrogations on people who committed crimes. I wouldn’t walk into a room thinking: I want a confession; I would stop and think, what do they need to hear from me to help them open up and tell me what they did?” she says. “I would never talk to them from my perspective. If you go in with the perspective ‘I need, I want’ you’re going to lose. Go in with the perspective: What does this person need?

If you go in with the perspective ‘I need, I want’ you’re going to lose. Go in with the perspective: What does this person need?

3. Don’t just ‘be yourself.’ “You bring different versions of yourself out depending on who you’re dealing with. You’re a different person when you’re talking to your parents, or a significant other or dealing with your boss … you need to find the version of you that works best with the person [you’re meeting with],” says Poumpouras. “Think: I need to adapt. I did my homework, this is what this person is about. I know I need this from them, but what do they need to hear from me to make them comfortable and open up and buy what I’m trying to say?”

4. Know when to be quiet. As much as possible, you want to listen more and talk less, says Poumpouras. “People think if they control the whole conversation they're the one who has power. It’s false, because you haven’t learned anything,” she says. “The person you’re talking to has learned everything about you: what motivates you, what your agenda is, what you’re thinking, how you process information. You’ve learned nothing about them. So when I go into meetings, I try to make sure everyone else speaks and I speak last. I want to learn about everyone in the room, I take mental notes, I size everybody up, and then I can speak more intelligently.”

5. Rely on facts. This rings especially true for times when you’re negotiating your salary or a job promotion. “Take notes of the things you do, so when it is time for you to go in to negotiate these things, you’ve got a list. This is very factual. You can’t argue logic," says Poumpouras. "You don’t want to go in there saying ‘I feel I’ve been doing a good job.’ It’s ‘I have been doing a good job and let me tell you how.’ That’s gives you more power and confidence. You’re falling back on hard facts and numbers, it’s not 'I need' or 'I want,' it's 'look at what I’ve done.'”

6. Embrace conflict. “We live in a world where everyone avoids confrontation. It’s to the point where we go so out of our way to avoid conflict, that it makes us feel worse," says Poumpouras. "So, we need to change our psyche. Conflict is not bad. Rather than looking at confrontation as a negative thing, embrace it. Confrontation doesn’t mean somebody yelling at you; you’re not going to get in a screaming match with your boss. Confrontation means having a discussion about something you don’t agree with.”

7. Use TED to always find out the why. There will always be times when people don’t agree with you, and that’s okay. What’s vital is that you get the why. To do this, Poumpouras says to remember the acronym TED: Tell me, explain, describe. “Tell me why. Explain to me what you’re thinking. Describe to me what the issues are. Boom. Open-ended question. Let them tell you. Put them on the spot,” she says. “I open up all my meetings with tell me, explain, describe. Because I want to gather intel and information, that way I know which way to steer the bus, so to speak.”


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